Study in older LGBTI Australians finds fear, discrimination and pain

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“If people experience one loss – they lose their job – it’s pretty major, but mine was compounded, I had loss of security, family, children, my home, my identity and my friends. I had to construct a whole new life for myself in every way.” In the struggle to be who she was, Dorothy McDonald lost everything. At times, it felt as if she had fallen into a “waking coma”.

Dorothy McDonald says she lost everything when she fell in love with a woman in the 1970s. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
Dorothy McDonald says she lost everything when she fell in love with a woman in the 1970s. Photo: Meredith O’Shea
Married to a man for 14 years, Dorothy then fell in love with *Ann in the 1970s, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Victoria and many believed gay and lesbian people were immoral or mentally ill.

When she decided to leave her husband, Dorothy’s parents branded her “insane” and made arrangements to have her “fixed”.

“They got me into the car and said: we’ve got an appointment with Pell [Cardinal George Pell]. They said: ‘You’re a sick person; we’re going to take you to Pell.’ They were almost hijacking me, but I refused to go.”

Being shunned by her family – her father only reconciled with her shortly before his death, while her mother never spoke to her again – pushed Dorothy to a suicide attempt. “The rejection of so many people really broke my spirit. Love had conditions attached to it.”

Her story forms part of a research project, revealing how gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians coming of age in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, endured religious conversion therapy, violence, imprisonment, forced psychiatric treatment, family rejection, and job losses, as many were forced to hide their sexuality.

fish-water-smiley-emoticonCommissioned by La Trobe University and beyondblue, There’s No Need to Straighten Up study of over-65s highlights how a history of homophobia – often sanctioned by state institutions – has caused high rates of depression and suicide attempts, with many older gay people now terrified of entering aged-care services for fear discrimination will force them back in the closet.

In October last year, Victoria became the first state to erase the historic criminal records of men who were convicted for having sex with men. However, this report shows the trauma experienced by older gay people extends beyond police persecution.

In their own words, participants tell of how they suffered nervous breakdowns because of ongoing homophobic harassment at work, while others detail missing out on promotions or living in constant fear of ridicule, bullying or physical violence.

“You can’t make someone love you and the hardest love of all is when it’s never returned so I just hung in there and hung in there and hoped that one day things would change and they have. I do still feel sorry for the people I’ve hurt, it was unintentional, but I can’t apologize for who I am.”

*Gerri was forced to hide her grief over the death of her long-term partner while Cliff’s* partner was discharged from the army for having a homosexual affair.

Of the 12 who took part in the project, five had previously attempted suicide, and two had experienced the suicide of a close friend or partner, all due to family or society responses to their sexuality.

The report is now being used to train staff in aged-care homes to be aware of the historical trauma experienced by many LGBTI senior citizens, and help make institutions more inclusive.

“A lot of providers think that all they need to do to be a welcoming service is put up a rainbow flag … but they need to understand this is a group of people who have had a lifetime of discrimination and they think that aged-care services are the next institution that’s going to discriminate against them,” said lead author, Dr Catherine Barrett, from La Trobe’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.

Another study participant, *Larry, was placed in a psychiatric institution for four months when he was 14, and given shock therapy in a bid to “cure” him.

“After shock treatment I can’t remember hardly anything from my childhood. They stick a big piece of rubber in your mouth and you don’t wake up for 24 hours and you don’t even know who you are, and then you wander around in these corridors. I’ve still got foggy parts of my brain.”

Later in life, Larry was arrested several times due to his sexuality, and was kicked out of the navy after confiding in a chaplain that he was gay. He suffered a breakdown and a suicide attempt.

tearful-smiley“You would cry yourself to sleep some nights because of some of the things that are said to you. And you think: ‘Oh, I wonder if they’re right. Or you didn’t know if you were sick or not. And all this used to burn its tentacles into your brain and it stays there; believe me it stays there.”

While there is now more legal recourse against discrimination, many of those interviewed were concerned that ageing and disability would again expose them to persecution.

A national strategy for LGBTI ageing and aged care was launched by the federal Department of Health in 2012 in a bid to tackle the issue.

Rebecca Reynolds, executive director of the National LGBTI Health Alliance, said the aged-care sector had been “enthusiastic and responsive” to the strategy and had boosted training for staff.

However she stressed the stories in the report highlighted the need for institutions to ensure all residents felt safe and welcome.

Dr Barrett said that one of the simplest things service providers could do was use inclusive language.

“Rather than saying to an older woman, ‘Were you ever married, do you have a husband?’ you could say, ‘Do you have a partner, what is your partner’s name?’ “, she said.

“A number of older LGBTI people in aged-care services will test their responses. They’ll say something like, ‘Oh, did you hear Elton John and his partner adopted a baby?’ And if the carers say ‘that’s disgusting, they shouldn’t be allowed to’, the older LGBTI person gets the message that it’s clearly not safe to tell you that I’m gay.

“Often they are trying really hard to pass under the radar because they’re scared. So the providers have to build up relationships, build up rapport and trust. Some people might never come out but that’s not the point, what you have to do is send a message that they are valued and safe.”

For Dorothy, being with Ann, her partner of nearly 40 years, has allowed her to live an authentic life. But it has come at a cost. “I didn’t realise that choosing her would mean losing my family. I honestly believed that I would have access to my children but there was interference from well-meaning people that if the children came to me they would be corrupted in some way, and they would be deviants.

“In the end, I backed away because I could see the damage it was doing to my children.”

Dorothy did not see her daughter for 12 years. It was nearly three decades before she was reunited with her son.

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*Names have been changed March 1, 2015 – Jill Stark


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